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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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From money to the market: the transformation of the Strategic Plan

by GR Evans

Speaking on a Topic for Discussion, a draft of Oxford’s Strategic Plan for 2013-8, Shearer West, then Head of Humanities, spoke as a woman with experience of strategic plans. She had “been involved” with their “development” in other places. She wanted to see the new Strategy “regularly revisited and subject to adjustment as times change”. As to its content, she spoke as a pragmatist. “Oxford academics rightly pride themselves on elegant and incisive writing”, she said, but “a strategic plan will certainly never win a prize for inspiring prose, because it is an operational document”.

The Strategic Plans of Britain’s universities may have begun on that practical and unpretentious assumption, but they have evolved into glamorous presentations designed to market their universities to prospective students and benefactors as well as to offer assurance that they are well run and not in financial difficulties. As headlines announce that a dozen universities may now be at risk of financial collapse it is a topical question whether this is a desirable trend. The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ Briefing Note provides a table. Yet universities which may fall into the category of the financially vulnerable have Strategic Plans as confident and optimistic as those far higher in the league-tables. The University of Sunderland, reported by THE in January as facing a ‘challenging financial environment’ and closing courses, has a Plan for 2020-2025 presenting it in visually exciting terms and glowing wording as ‘a twenty-first century global university’.

The principal reason at first for requiring universities to have Strategic Plans was ‘operational’. They began as a device to ensure they took long term financial planning seriously and to facilitate monitoring of their use of the public funding of higher education. They became a requirement for universities when the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 created the Higher Education Funding Councils, replacing the short-lived single Universities Funding Council. For nearly a century until it was abolished in 1989 public money for university higher education been distributed through the University Grants Committee.

Although the new Councils were intended to act as buffers betwee Government control and the allocaton of block grants of public funding, the Government nevertheless gained closer control of the spending, for each year the Minister send a letter of guidance and instruction. The Councils’ Financial Memoranda required universities to give an accurate account of their finances as a condition of funding.

In 1997 the Dearing Report took it for granted that:

institutions share their strategic plans, including an estates strategy, with the three Higher Education Funding Councils; and the financial memoranda require institutions to secure value for money in the use of their assets and to follow a maintenance plan for their estates.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England was by now duly receiving and analysing these plans. In 2000 it published a guide for heads of institutions, senior managers and members of governing bodies, Strategic planning in higher education.

The call for such plans was reinforced in 2003 the White Paper, The future of higher education. The intention was to ask HEFCE to

look at how funding for departments with lower ratings under the existing system can be related to potential to progress further, and linked to good planning for future improvement.

HEFCE felt it had to set an example. Introducing its own internal Strategic Plan 2003-8 its then CEO, Howard Newby, said:

We hope that our colleagues in universities and colleges, for their part, will find in our plan a secure and practical framework for their own planning and activities throughout and beyond the planning period. We look forward to working with them to ensure that national policies and our strategy are put fully into effect, and to support and maintain a national HE system working consistently to international standards of excellence.

However, in 2017 the Higher Education and Research Act replaced HEFCE with the Office for Students and the Financial Memorandum requirement disappeared. The other parts of the UK have made their own arrangements under devolved powers. The Scottish Funding Council funds further as well as higher education and in 2020 it requires each college and university to have an Outcome Agreement in line with both ‘ministerial priorities and the SFC’s own ‘strategic framework’. It explains their purpose:

Outcome Agreements articulate how institutions provide an education that best meets the changing social and economic needs of their regions, reflecting a changing and increasingly diverse profile of students. They are an important part of the framework in which we ensure that institutions make best use of public funds and exercise good governance.

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales published a Corporate Strategy (2017-20) setting out its strategy for ‘delivery of the Welsh Government’s priorities for higher education’, as ‘informed by our annual remit letter’. It promised to: Monitor the financial sustainability of HE providers, and the organisation and management of their financial affairs, with particular reference to the requirements of our Financial Management Code. Northern Ireland’s Government funds its universities directly through the Department for the Economy without the intervention of a Funding Council.

On 9 September 2020 the Office for Students published its Guidance for providers for the financial monitory returns. It requires an Annual Financial Return with ‘workbook’ and commentary’, and in the case of relative newcomers to higher education provision, a Business Plan. It has a Strategy (2018-21) of its own but it does not seem to see it as a regulatory essential for a university to have one.

Nevertheless, it has become a continuing custom for universities to publish their Strategy or Strategic Plan. Such Plans have broadened far beyond the endeavour to assure funding councils and government that they had their finances in good order and are spending public money appropriately and to good effect. They are unlikely to mention their finances except to invite donations. They now tend to include Visions and Missions, often dividing their content into small pieces for easy consumption. They offer photographic and even video illustrations . In its interim ‘refresh’ of its current Plan Delivering Impact for Society, our Strategic Plan 2016, Edinburgh points to developments so far and a video to watch for ‘a short summary of the values, strategic priorities and aspirations of the new draft plan’.

The transformation of a vehicle for reporting financial soundness to a public relations and marketing opportunity in which the plain truth is edited for frankly presentational purposes should surely sit uncomfortably with the purposes of a university.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and served as CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE.